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The Future of Work Will Rely on Freelancing

Photo: Courtesy of Ali Yahya

Rafael Espinal

President, Freelancers Union

When a Freelancers Union member was fired from her full-time job because her schedule demanded she care for her frequently sick newborn, she found a lifeline in freelance writing. Through freelancing, she was able to control her schedule and work with multiple clients at once, helping her take care of her child while also receiving income from multiple sources.

She and so many other independent workers have turned to freelancing as a viable way of both earning a living and doing what they love. With COVID-19 threatening the job market as we knew it, freelancing could be a major engine to get us back on track. But to realize this potential, legislators must ensure laws support rather than hurt the freelance sector.  

Driving force

Freelancers make up nearly a third of the U.S. workforce and contribute more than $1 trillion to the country’s GDP. These are the artists, writers, journalists, graphic designers, and entertainers who produce both financial and cultural capital for our most successful cities. 

The freelancing economy — like its workers — has shown resilience over the years and will surely continue to grow after the pandemic. The 2008 financial crisis triggered a global boom in freelancing jobs. 

In 2011, Financial Times reported that the number of people who worked as freelancers in the United Kingdom has increased by 12 percent since 2008, with the number of working mothers becoming freelancers rising by 25 percent. Economic forces motivated people to become freelance professionals then, and this is a likely possibility now. Those who have lost their jobs are looking for creative ways to rebound, and with more people prioritizing working from home as opposed to crowding in offices, freelancing will offer a viable path forward. 

But our elected leaders must seize the opportunity before us. This will include incentivizing freelance jobs, and expanding the social safety to include freelancers, including wage protections and tools for worker empowerment. 

Fighting for freelancers

Our union is fighting hard to help freelancers deal with these material hardships. In 2015, we moved legislators in New York City to pass the Freelance isn’t Free Act, the first of its kind wage protection law that gave freelancers recourse to collect unpaid invoices and fine clients for non-payment. 

At the height of the pandemic, over 80 percent of freelancers were left without opportunities to earn an income, and we successfully advocated at the federal level for independent workers to be included in small business disaster loans and worker safety nets, such as unemployment insurance. As an extra measure of support, we created the Freelancers Relief Fund to raise private dollars, providing direct financial support to freelancers in need. 

But beyond helping these workers meet their immediate needs, we must ensure these programs continue to exist post-pandemic and that there are still opportunities for freelancers to continue working once the economy reopens. 

Increasing opportunity

Protecting freelancers also includes making sure our laws don’t restrict work opportunities. In recent months, some of our members have expressed concern over legislation propping up across the country, including in New York and Illinois, and the federal PRO Act that uses a legal standard known as an ABC test to provide worker benefits. 

This follows laws like California’s AB-5, which sought to protect misclassified workers, but has had unintended consequences on freelancers. Immediately after the law passed, employers refused to contract professional freelancers to avoid the legal complexity and penalties associated with the ABC test. Fortunately, California lawmakers passed a clean-up bill that would help the freelance journalists, musicians, and artists who were inadvertently affected. This is welcome news, but is a cautionary tale for legislators to ensure professional freelancers are considered from the very beginning for their efforts.

Our communities thrive on their creatives and the industries that employ them, such as nightlife, film, media, and tech. It is time freelancers are at the forefront of the conversation, not just when disaster strikes, but because of the value they provide in their own right and the protections they justly deserve. 

The Great Depression spurred the creation of programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance to support the traditional workforce; the COVID-19 pandemic must be used as an opportunity to support the future of work. 

A major part of our economy, communities, and culture, these workers will be a large contributor to getting our country back on track. But to achieve this, they will have to be protected as part of economic rebound efforts and not just be an afterthought.

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